Friday, March 21, 2014

Why We Should NOT Write on Students' Work

During the month of March, I am participating in the Slice of Life Challenge, hosted by Most of my posts are at my personal blog, because they are slices of daily life,  but this one is directly about education, so I am posting it here, on the professional blog that I share with Melanie Swider.

Yesterday, I gave a workshop to the paras who work in our district within the Special Education Program. Having been a special education teacher myself, before becoming the Writing Coordinator for our district, I know the challenges that these people face on a daily basis and I think that they do some of the hardest work there is.

One of the more controversial points that I made with them (and I was not meaning to be controversial at all!!!) was that adult writing does not belong on student writing. This comment really got some reactions and questions. Here's a sampling, although definitely incomplete of some of the questions and my responses:

 Someone: Do you mean that we should never write on their paper?

Me: That's what I mean. You could use a post-it, or write it on another piece of paper, if you need it for progress monitoring, but, yes, that's what I mean.

Someone Else: Not ever?

Me: (hesitating a moment, debating how much anxiety to cause amidst the people in front of me, then shaking my head) No. Not Ever. (Watching that statement cause a buzz in the audience, waiting a moment.) The research is actually pretty clear and the experts about writing development universally say that we should not be writing on children's writing. In fact, I just had an interesting conversation with another teacher about electronic sharing platforms for student writing and whether teacher comments even belong on them.

Another person: So how are we supposed to read their writing? What if it is illegible?

Me: I am indebted to Christine Holley, our staff developer from The Teachers College Reading and Writing Project for the lines, "What did you mean to say?" and "what would you want to say now?" Basically, if a child can not write so that we can read it, then the focus of the work should be on oral rehearsal, letter sounds, pictures and labels, word approximations...they may not be ready to write an entire story.

Yet another question: What about the child who refuses to write a single word? He knows that his writing won't be perfect and he won't write unless he is perfect so he just makes me write for him.

The conversation continued, and I am not certain that I have captured all of the questions in the script, but this question is the one that really illustrates the rationale for why we shouldn't write on students' work. When we do, we teach them that their writing is not perfect, not even good enough. We teach them that they need us to translate their thoughts to paper, that any approximation is not good enough. Yes, our writing is much better than theirs. We know how to spell, we know how to write sentences, we have great fine motor skills so our letters are neat and aligned.

We need to give them different messages.

We want struggling writers to believe that what they think is important and what they say is important, so important that we want to capture it in a more permanent form. We want them to believe that even if their writing does not look like a printing press, they are able to express a story, or an opinion, or relay some information and we will work to teach them to do that at whatever level they are on. We want them to believe that the process of writing, at whatever stage they are in, is within their grasp and not so hard that we need to just grab the pencil or the keyboard and take over for them.

To this day, my mother tells the story about driving my grandfather's golf cart and having him reach over and keep his hand on the steering wheel. I think that it may be one of the reasons I can't get her to golf with me. People don't like to have their projects taken over, they don't like to feel incompetent, they don't like to feel like their work is never good enough, or that they need help in order to do it right.  People, children included, want to feel independent and empowered, at any age and level, and we should be striving to provide tools that meet them at whatever level they are to be independent and build skills.

While my daughter is in high school, and her writing skills are a world away from the children that these people are thinking of when they asked the questions, here are some of the responses I got when I asked her about teachers writing on her work:

"It makes me feel inadequate, frustrated, and exasperated  and like I did nothing right. I'm pretty sure that I did not give anyone permission to scribble all over my original work."

"When teachers write all over your work, all you do is look at the scribbles and not at anything else."

"You become trained to think that only the underlined things that say good are the only good things about your writing, while in reality, it could be a solid piece."

And when I asked my sixth-grader, here are some of the responses:

"I kind of just worked on that and now I just have to do more corrections."

"I know that the corrections might be good corrections, but they're really not mine."

"Sometimes, there are corrections and I have no idea what it even means."

A final thought I have about this admittedly controversial topic relates to teaching students within their comfortable zone of learning, professionally known as their zone of proximal development. Best practice is to teach right in that zone, and if that's happening, then we should be able to expect a fair amount of independence, without having to do the work ourselves. 

I'd love to hear the thinking of other bloggers!

And that's all for Day 21 of the Slice of Life Challenge,


  1. I struggle with this every day. My sixth graders tend to lose sticky notes, or they move around on the page somewhere between conference and back to their desks. Each of my kids has an editing notes sheet which we fill out together to mark the thinking we've done during our conferences...but sometimes I write notes in the margins with arrows. My struggling writers seem to need this. I know what your daughters mean about their high school teachers and those copious notes saying "do this", "move that" - but these are removed from any one on one conferences, and it's a different thing...there is no common understanding between student and teacher about the notes, the notes are directives. But, as I say, I struggle with this one, Melanie.

  2. That is the message I try to give teachers, but they don't believe it. They think of the way they were taught and that's how it's done. There needs to be a shift in thinking. I think when teachers write on the paper, they are teaching the writing, not the writer. That is a huge aha for many teachers.

  3. since i've started teaching at an international school, all emergent bilinguals, i've been feeling really unsettled about written feedback. the culture of the school is often that teachers need to tell students what is right, because they don't know, because they don't speak English. & that's awful. i want my students to feel ownership of our class & their learning, & i want them to feel capable. there's already such a hierarchy of language for EBs - English is "better," English means "smart." those "do this" comments in the margins just reinforce that idea. & i know they're not learning from it. their most recent assignment, i've done way too much commenting. i need to redress the way i comment. i've never thought about not writing on their papers at all, but i love it. thanks for this! it's given me a lot to think about!

  4. I agree. We have begun implementing the Units of Study for Writing in our third grade room and trying to implement in the school. The teachers want DOL every day and then sit with each kid until the writing is error free. It is a huge shift and a lot of teachers in our school are having a hard time giving up that control.

  5. I'm with you, Melanie. I use post-it notes, usually to compliment or ask questions. And your point about helping students to know that this is within their grasp is so important! All writers are on a continuum of skill level, and are goal is to move them forward. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this sensitive question!

  6. I'm behind on my reading, so glad I looked back at this post.

    Thank you for this. The fact that you originally worked as a special education teacher makes sense. This struck me: "I know the challenges that these people face on a daily basis and I think that they do some of the hardest work there is." That is true for the educators and for the students.

    Writing is hard. Hard for everyone. Writing often puts you in a place of extreme vulnerability. To write and then get criticized teaches students not to write.

    I have two students who have a difficult time reading their own writing. The option I offer is electronic, but I worry for their future. Parents are worried. We tried OT evaluations, but apparently their measure is rewriting a prewritten sentence. If they can do that they don't need OT. And maybe that is true I'm not an OT. The reality is when these students write their thoughts, fine motor skills goes out the window -- not a big stretch to understand that one. I'm not sure of the answers on this one. Wondering what your thoughts are on developing writers who struggle with legibility.

    1. Hi Julieanne, I think that it matters what age they are. I had a fifth grader make huge growth when we moved him to a computer. I think that this would work for younger students as well. I also go back to the "What did you want to say" line for younger students, and then I really honor their thoughts, trying to impress upon them how much I value them.

  7. I'm with you on this. We draft on computers now (1:1 this year) and comments on google documents seem to work exactly like sticky notes...students look at them, make revisions (or not) and they can resolve the comments disappear. Thanks for the great post!! Love this!

  8. Yes, finding working with Google Docs and inserting comments in margin are a bit like sticky notes, but it also depends on what we say in the comments. Also, depends on the context and purpose for writing, so hard to generalize even with Google Doc about what and how much we should insert with comments. Overall, adult students report the process works well for them. Yet, the reactions of your daughters need to be shared with more teachers for them to see how students respond when teachers write directly on a paper.